Fureai Trail Saitama Section IX: The Path Seeking Masakado Legends (Part 1)


On a day in November of 2018 I stood on the mountainside to the east of Nagatoro, overlooking a long arm of the Chichibu Basin stretching out towards the Kanto to the east. Below, the town spread out along the blue line that was the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川), and past that the wall of mountains beyond which lay Gunma Prefecture, the next stage of the Fureai Trail. For nearly a year now, I had been making my way steadily to this point. And along that ridge, the highest peak rose up, towering over the basin, a perfect vantage point. I had stood there myself some months before. Then it was a peak wrapped in mist so thick that I could hardly see more than a few kilometers. At that time, I had no idea what view was hidden from me, nor how important that view has been in the past.

Castle Peak at sunset

What I was looking at was Mt. Castle Peak (Jōmine-san, 城峰山), the focus of Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. At 1037.7 meters tall, the mountain is the tallest within Chichibu’s Jōbu Nature Park (上武自然公園) and commands a sweeping view of the mountains of Inner Chichibu (奥秩父), the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地), Nikko (日光), and also the mountains of Jōshinetsu (上信越). It’s a shame that on the day I passed through it was too misty to see any of that, but such is a common experience for hikers in Japan.

From the summit of Castle Peak; below, you can see Castle Peak Shrine

Given that the peak makes for such an excellent lookout position, it comes as no surprise that over the centuries it has been associated with prominent military figures, in particular the Heian Period (794 – 1185) rebel Taira no Masakado and also the Warring States Period (1467 – c. 1600) general Takeda Shingen. Even today there are numerous place names on and near the mountain that reflect this history: King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Mountain (Shiro-yama, 城山), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), and Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢). As such, this section of trail makes an excellent stop not just for nature enthusiasts but also for fans of history as well.

The trail were Bellclad Castle once stood; now it’s just a flat spot atop a hill

At 14.3 km long, this section is the longest course on the trail since Section IV, all of which have been less than 10 km. As such, those who are more interested in hiking than simply strolling will definitely get their fill on this trip. The trail picks up some distance up the road from the end of Section VIII and is accessible by bus from Minano Station (皆野駅), but Google doesn’t have the bus line in its system yet, you’ll have to rely on this timetable. You should get off at Nishi Montaira (西門平). From the bus stop, walk further up the road a short distance until you see your first Fureai Trail marker.

bus timetable
The timetable from Minano Station to the bus stop at Nishi Montaira.

The first half of the trail sticks to footpaths all the way to the summit of Castle Peak, but shortly after descending down to Castle Peak Shrine, the trail begins to follow predominantly roadways, though there are still some sections of actual trail. Towards the end, this section meets up with Section X before ending at Tosen Bridge (登仙橋). Google can carry you home from there.

Points of Interest

“The Bugs’ Farewell” of Montaira

If you’re planning on hiking this section in mid-August, consider planning your trip for the 16th so that you can witness a distinct local celebration: Montaira Village’s Mushi Okuri or “The Bugs’ Farewell.” In this event, the villagers perform a sort of exorcism to remove evil spirits from the village who were once believed to cause disease, pestilence, natural disasters, and all sorts of other misfortunes. The event features a parade of people in traditional dress marching to the edge of town while playing musical instruments such as taiko drums and flutes or carrying special flags, called segaki hata (施餓鬼旗), all the while chanting a special prayer.

The Bugs’ Farewell
Photo credit: https://paruruharu.blog.so-net.ne.jp/2013-08-16

This parade occurs on the last day of the Bon festival, a Buddhist celebration for honoring deceased ancestors celebrated all over Japan and is often compared to the Thanksgiving holiday in North America. The last day of the festival, on which Montaira’s Bugs’ Farewell occurs, is known as Okuribon (送り盆), or “Farewell Bon,” because on this day people would traditionally hold a ceremony in which they bid the spirits of their ancestors farewell.

What sets the Bugs’ Farewell apart from the more typical version of the festival is that in Montaira the focus of this ceremony is not to see off the spirits of their own ancestors, but rather to do so for the spirits of those who don’t have families to tend their graves. According to tradition, people who die childless or whose family line dies off are left in a deeply unsatisfied state and therefore cause all sorts of trouble for those of us in the human world. To appease these ghosts, the people of Montaira began holding this special ceremony just for them, bringing them to the edge of the town like honored guests on the point of departure. The festival acquired its name because, once these spirits were satisfied, they would quit sending bugs to lay pestilence upon the crops.

Mountain Forts of the Warring States Period

The period from 1467 to roughly 1600 is typical referred to as the Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国) and is marked by a collapse of central authority and the rise of autonomous military states across the country who constantly vied with each other for territorial control. A number of great generals are remembered from this time, among them one Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), who became active in the area around Castle Peak towards the end of this period. For those of you who have followed this blog, you might be interested to know that he was the ruler of the old state of Kai (甲斐), where a certain Peak of the Colt (甲斐駒ヶ岳) is located.

Takeda Shingen by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain or Public domain]

By 1569 Takeda had established control of western Jōshū (上州), whose southern border happened to be the mountain range on which Castle Peak sits. During that same year he pushed further south, crossing the Kanna River (神流川) into that range (which was then part of Musashi (武蔵) province), where he established a line of forts to secure his frontier. Among the many that he built, the best remembered today are Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城) and the lookout on Mt. Castle Peak, both of which are located along Section IX; Kanasana Mitake Castle (金鑚御嶽城) Kamikawa Village (神川村); Tiger Hill Castle (Tora-ga-Oka Jō, 虎が丘城) and Kanao Stronghold (Kanao Yōgai Sanjō, 金尾要害山城) in Yorii Town (寄居町); Highpine Castle (Takamatsu Jō, 高松城) and Dragon Valley Castle (Ryū-ga-Tani Jō, 竜ヶ谷) in Minano Town (皆野町).

Near the end of the Warring States Period, rival daimyo managed to capture one of the castles in Takeda’s line, and after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of the country their reason for existence was lost, so they fell into ruin. Today, only their earthwork portions remain.

More to come!

There was quite a lot of information about this section, more than could fit in a single post. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we discuss more about the history of the area. Until then, please enjoy some of photos from my visit!

Trail at a Glance

Trail NameThe Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
MapClick here
Access:Start: Nishikado-daira Bus Stop (西門平バス停)*
End: Tosenkyo Bus Stop (登仙橋バス停)
Difficulty: Moderate
Natural Beauty:Average (good views of distant mountains)
Ideal SeasonsSpring and Fall
Camping LocationsJomine-yama Campground (城峰山キャンプ場)
Length (distance)14.3 km
Length (time)4 hours and 50 minutes
Food accessnone

*No transit information available from Google. The bus that goes there departs from Minano Station in Saitama.

Haiji’s Trail Stats

Distance traveled189.1 km 10.5%
Courses completed16/16010%
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

Thanks for reading! Be sure to like and comment! What part of the hike do you think is the most interesting? And, if you like what I do, drop a tip in the tip jar!

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Fureai Saitama VIII: The Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin

On the day I hiked the Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin, the skies were threatening rain. I remember standing atop Gable Mountain (Happu-san, 破風山) looking out at the dark clouds rolling across the horizon obscuring the high mountains in the distance; nonetheless, the broad expanse of the basin lay clear ahead, painted in dark evergreen with geometric patches of grey townscape and pale green rice fields. Barely visible in the distance, the thin blue stroke of the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川) meandered across the valley.

The view from Gable Mountain

Nearby, my coworker Derek rested on a low, rough-cut wooden bench. In that humid August air, we were both thoroughly drenched in sweat. I checked my phone. “It looks like the sun might come out in a few hours. If we’re lucky, we just might get some swimming done this afternoon.”

That was the original plan at least. Since the Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺めるみち) is just a short 4.3 km section, we needed something to fill out the day trip. I’d ordinarily have been inclined to do a second section, but this one was isolated from the previous and the next by several kilometers of roadway, so I decided on another tack: a stop by the Rough River for some good swimming, something which had been longing for for a while. Wouldn’t you know it that the weeks of perfectly sunny skies would be punctuated with rain when I finally did. As it turned out, though we did get some rain the sun eventually did come out. During the rain, we got to enjoy a hotspring spa, and during the sun we went swimming in the river. I call that a win.

Course Overview

The Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin officially starts some distance from the end of the previous section, but the two are connected by roadways marked with Fureai Trail signposts if one were to want to hike the whole distance. Once you arrive in the small village of Futto (風戸), however, the path turns left across the stream and up into the mountains. From there its a quick 4.3 km hike to the top of Gable Mountain (Hafu-san, 破風山) and back down to the pavement. Overall, it’s a fairly easy and quick hike well suited to people of all ages, but it still yields some fantastic views.


Being such a short section of trail, hikers ought to plan to spend a significant amount of time enjoying the various attractions to be found along the trail and just after. Luckily, this section has a lot to offer, including a hot spring spa, a variety of flowering plants, and a bit of history and religion. Read on for details.

Mangan no Yu Hotspring

Mangan no Yu Hotspring is a popular local hotspring sure to be lively with visitors on any weekend. Equipped with a gift shop selling local products, an outdoor bath in addition to the typical indoor pools and saunas, and a cafeteria to boot, you could easily spend a whole afternoon here relaxing after the hike. It’s located very close to the start of the trail, but since the route makes a horeshoe loop up to the summit of Gable Mountain before dropping back down to the main road, its pretty easy to just walk right back down after you finish. Derek and I spent a couple hours there while we waited for the rain to let up, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Lunch at Mangan no Yu

The Flowers of Futto Village

A walk through a village in Saitama is certain to dazzle you with beautiful flowers, and Futto is no different. Even in August, everywhere I looked there were flowers of all colors blooming.

The Shade Rhododendron Colony in Futto

If you’re visiting in May, about 2 km into the hike you’ll come across a slope covered in pale yellow flowers: these are Futto Village’s colony of shade rhododendrons (hikage tsutsuji, 日陰躑躅). This evergreen shrub native to Japan grows approximately 1 meter high and can be found in shady spots on mountainsides all over Shikoku and Kyushu, but only grows in the southern half of Honshu. In fact, this particular colony is thought to be at the absolute extremity of their livable climate — no other known colonies exist further north.

By Alpsdake投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 4.0, Link


Known as Japanese Andromeda in English, asebi is a medium-sized shrub whose name written in Chinese characters literally means “horse intoxicating tree” and was so named because its poisonous leaves would cause horses who ate them to behave as though they were drunk. Interestingly, though, this poison had its benefits: in the old days, farmers would steep the leaves and stems in hot water and then spray the resulting tea on plants and livestock as insect repellent. I suppose we hikers today might use it in this way if we forget to bring our own repellent, but try it at your own risk.

Asebi typically grows from 1.5 to 3 meters high and can be found everywhere in Japan. Owing to its wide distribution, its has become known by a variety of names according to local dialects, including asebu, ashibi, and asebo, among others. It can be identified by its long,  thin, and waxy leaves that taper to a point, accompanied by its pale purple bell-shaped flowers, which bloom in March. Be careful not to mistake it for suzuran, another species that features similarly shaped flowers.

By Liné1 – Personal picture taken with my IXUS 800 IS, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

Monkey Rock

About a half a kilometer from the summit of Gable Mountain is Monkey Rock (Saru Iwa, 猿岩), a outcrop right by the trail that stands about 3 or 4 meters high. The rock can be scaled easily around the back side without needing to do any real bouldering, and from the top one can get a decent view of the surrounding landscape.

Monkey Rock
Towards Hinozawa from Monkey Rock
The Chichibu Basin from Monkey Rock

Gable Mountain

The summit of Gable Mountain is easily the highlight of the trip. At a height of just 627 meters, at first glance it might not seem worth the trip, but in fact the summit offers a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin as well as the high mountains beyond, making it a great destination for photographers and sightseers alike. I imagine the view would be especially beautiful on a starry night, where one could juxtapose the light of the town below with that of the moon. Just below the summit is a large pavilion that would make an excellent place to sleep for the night.

The Chichibu Basin from the summit of Gable Mountain

Tagstand Pass

Shortly after descending from the summit of Gable Mountain one will arrive at Tagstand Pass (Fuda-tate Toge, 札立峠), where the trail joins with the Chichibu Fudasho pilgrimage route. This route covered 100 km and takes roughly 6 days to complete, during which pilgrims visit a total of 34 local temples, each of which offers a fuda, a type of paper tag used as a talisman; to complete the pilgrimage, one should acquire a fuda from each of these temples. This pass is located between the last two temples on the route, Kikusui Temple (Chrysanthemum-water Temple, 菊水寺) and Suisen Temple (Water-concealing Temple, 水潜寺). The route follows the Akahira River (赤平川) from the former in Hisanaga Village (久長集落) before descending down to the latter in Shimo Hinozawa, where pilgrims can receive their final fuda tag.

At first thought, one might assume that the name “tagstand” originates from the fuda tags associated with the pilgrimage route, but actually it comes from a different fuda tag. According to the stories, long ago in great times of drought, monks would climb up to this point to place special fuda to request the gods send rain.

Suisen Temple

The way to Suisen Temple follows a narrow ravine lined by rocky outcrops. As you approach the temple, Buddhist monuments start to appear on the right.

I wasn’t able to find a lot of information about the temple’s history, but the hall dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kannon located there was apparently built in 1828, so it’s a fairly historic building. It’s also the final stop on the Chichibu 34 Holy Grounds and Japan’s 100 Kannon Holy Grounds pilgrimages. Even today you can still sometimes see pilgrims passing through wearing the traditional white tunic and sedge hat.

The main object of worship here is a single block wooden statue of the Thousand Handed Kannon, which dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). The temple also venerates images of the deities Amida Nyorai and the Yakushi Nyorai. These two deities represent the Saigoku and Bando regions respectively, which along with Chichibu comprise the entire area within which the the 100 Kannon Pilgrimage is contained.

Unfortunately, as the temple occupied an extremely narrow valley and was set somewhat up a hillside slightly obscured by trees, it was impossible to get a decent shot of the building.

Trail at a Glance

Trail NameThe Path Gazing over the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺める道)
MapClick here
AccessStart: Futto Iriguchi Bus Station (風戸入口バス停)*
End: Fudasho Mae Bus Stop (札所前バス停)*
Natural BeautyModerate
Ideal SeasonLate spring to early summer
Camping LocationsAround 100 meters from the summit of Gable Mountain there’s a pavilion that would make an excellent campsite
Distance4.3 km
Time2 hours
Food accessMangan no Yu Hotspring

*Note: No bus information available from Google. Take the bus from Minano Station.

The bus timetable. To go to the trailhead, take the bus from Minano. To get back, take the bus towards Minano

My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 174.8 km (9.7%)
Courses completed: 15/160 (9.4%)
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

Thanks for reading! Be sure to like and comment! What part of the hike do you think is the most interesting? And, if you like what I do, drop a tip in the tip jar!

Fureai Saitama Intermission: The Legends and History of Hôdô-san Shrine (2 of 2)

The following post is Part 2 of my two part series about Hôdô-san Shrine in the town of Nagatoro, Japan. Be sure to check out Part 1 before reading on! And be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think.


The Sub-Shrines at Hôdô-san

It isn’t at all uncommon for Shinto shrines to be accompanied by one or more sub-shrines, or betsu-gû (別宮). In Hôdô-san’s case, there are three: Tenmanten Shrine, Hogyoku Inari Shrine, and Yamato Takeru Shrine. Each is dedicated to a different spirit, and each has its own legends, traditions, and holidays, which are explained below.


Tenmanten Shrine

Originally, this shrine was simply dedicated to the renowned Heian Period (794-1185) poet and statesman Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真). However, in later years another nearby shrine was combined with this one and so was renamed Tenmanten Shrine (天満天神社). Michizane, however, remained as the venerated spirit, and is today revered as a deity of calligraphy, scholarship, and agriculture.

The interior of Tenmanten Shrine

In the past the temple’s holy day was called Hatsutenjin (初天神) and was held every year on January 25th. On that day, the local children would make a visit to the shrine to present their first calligraphy of the year. Afterwards, they would gather together at a nearby house to spend the day having fun playing traditional Japanese games like karuta (歌留多) and sugoroku (双六) and eating delicious food.

These days, owing to modern work schedules, the holiday is now celebrated on the nearest Saturday to January 25th. These days, parents and children who are preparing for a test or for school admissions visit the temple to pray for success in these endeavors. For this reason the holiday is also called Kangaku-sai, or the “Encouraging Study Festival.” Those celebrating the holiday also leave small wooden ema (絵馬) plaques in front of the temple containing such messages as prayers for success in school or, as in the old days, the year’s first calligraphy.


Hôgyoku Inari Shrine (宝玉稲荷)

The Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is just one of the countless shrines across the country dedicated to fox god Inari, a god not of mischief as in the western tradition but of rice, tea, sake, and fertility. I suppose these things go together. This particular shrine was established on December 14 of the year Bunsei 5 (1822) when half of the spirit of Uka-no-Mitama (倉稻魂, the spirit of rice in storehouses), an associated deity to Inari, was enshrined here. I say half of because according to custom, that’s literally what is believed: a spirit cannot be simply worshiped in two places since the spirit is not considered to be omnipresent as in many Western traditions, and it has to be ritually divided in order to be worshiped in two different locations. The other half of Uka-no-Mitama’s spirit can be found at its original home at Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷社).

Foxes flank this shrine to the fox god

This shrine is revered by numerous people both within and without Nagatoro for it’s divine virtues, which are said to bring about bountiful harvests, prosperity in trade, and domestic security. It is also believed that if you visit the shrine at times when you’ve lost something, it will miraculously return to you.

The annual festival of Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is called Hatsuuma-sai (初午際), or the “First Horse Festival,” so named because it falls on the first day of the horse by the old lunar calendar. Additionally, there is a ritual held on the 25th each month called Otaki-age Matsuri (御炊上際), or “The Cook-up Festival.” This festival starts at 3 pm with prayers for wealth and happiness followed by offerings of red beans, rice, and holy sake left in the grottoes around the mountain so that the messenger of Uka-no-Mitama, the white fox Obyakko (御白狐), will come to work miracles.


The Shrine to Yamato Takeru no Mikoto

Longtime readers of this blog will have already heard something of the famous 8th century warrior and son of the 12th emperor of Japan Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, who led a great expedition to eastern Japan to subdue rebellious subjects. There are more than a few locations in this area that have legends about this man attached to them. Here at Hôdô-san, he holds a special place as the founder of this holy site.

The shrine to Yamato Takeru

According to legend, Yamato Takeru was enthralled with the beautiful shape and mystical atmosphere of this mountain, and so he decided to establish a shrine here (see the previous post for more information). Those who remembered Takeru’s compassion built this shrine, near the spring where he ritually purified himself before climbing the mountain.

The festival for Yamato Takeru is called the 88th Night, so named because it occurs on the 88th day following the first day of spring by the old lunar calendar, which is May 2nd by the current system. On this day believers reenact Takeru’s climb to the summit, carrying a ritual palanquin holding his spirit to the Inner Shrine at the top of Hôdô-san, where the festival is carried out and traditional Shinto dances and songs are performed. Another name for the festival is Tsutsuji Matsuri, or the Azalea Festival, because a prominent variety of azalea blooms at this time. In addition to marking the start of the farming season in the Chichibu area, it is also the official day when the mountain is ceremonially opened for the year, so the summit is lively with believers and hikers alike at this time.


Kagura: Entertaining the Gods

Among the several outbuildings at Hôdô-san Shrine lies one building that isn’t actually a sub-shrine per-se, but is rather a hall dedicated to a traditional form of Japanese theatrical performance known as Kagura (神楽), or the God’s Entertainment. This practice is rooted in the most ancient of Japanese mythology and originates from the following tale.

Long ago, the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照) hid herself in a cave to sulk after a dispute with her brother, thus casting the world into darkness. The goddess Ame-no-Uzu danced at the entrance of the cave in order to coax her out. The plan worked: Amaterasu was intrigued by her dance and came out to watch, and so light was restored to the world. From then on, the people of Japan commemorated this important event by repeating Ame-no-Uzu’s dance, which is now called Kagura (神楽), or “the gods’ entertainment.”

Though the Kagura tradition is carried out in some form all across Japan, the practice takes various shapes, from the formalized mikagura (御神楽) of official shrines to the folk versions known as Village Kagura, or satokagura (里神楽). In the Chichibu area, there are a total of six lineages of Kagura, one of which is still practiced today at Hôdô-san Shrine. The unique characteristic of this form of Kagura is the fact that there are individual dances dedicated to many gods that appear in the two great classics of Japanese mythology, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. In addition to simple dances, theatrical performances of famous stories from these two books also occur. Whether dance or theater, all of the performances are done silently save for a single Waka poem that appears in one of the stories, which is uttered aloud. In addition, a cauldron containing hot water used in a special purification ritual is hung outside of the Kagura Hall (pictured below).

The Kagura Hall

The variety of Kagura performed at Chichibu’s shrines dates back to the early 19th century, but these activities were suspended roughly half a century later during the political upheavals that led to the end of the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868). The formal practice resumed once more in the 1920s; prior to that the dances were performed by roaming Kagura troupes. One of those troupes was the Hinozawa Futobuto Society (日野沢太々協会) of Hinozawa village in nearby Minano Town (a few stops down on the Chichibu Line from Hôdô-san). At that time, the people of Nagatoro (then called Fujiyabuchi, 藤谷淵), lacking their own Kagura Troupe, went there to engage in the practice. However, in 1910 the Nagatoro’s own Fujiyabuchi Kagura Troupe was founded, and so the two troupes began to take turns giving Kagura performances at the local shrines.

In 1922 the Fujiyabuchi Troupe became the official Kagura performers for Hôdô-san Shrine and thus changed their name to Hôdô-san Shrine Kagura Troupe (Hôdô-san Jinja Kagura-dan, 寳登山神社神楽団). Since then, they have continued to preserve traditional performances and so in 1960 they were designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Nagatoro.

The major performances each year occur on January 1st, February 3rd or 4th (depending on the year), April 3rd, and May 4th.

What did you think about this post? Did you enjoy learning about the history and culture of this rural shrine? Let me know in the comments down below! And, if you want to make sure I can keep writing similar articles, consider leaving a tip in the tip jar! Be sure to stay tuned next week, as we move on down the Fureai Trail to see what lies on Section VIII: the Path Gazing Down on the Chichibu Basin!

© Brian Heise, 2018

Fureai Saitama Intermission: The Legends and History at Hôdô-san Shrine (1 of 2)

Out in the mountains northwest of Tokyo in a region known as Chichibu, Section VII of the Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail winds through the quaint riverside town of Nagatoro (長瀞). Given it’s rural location, one would hardly expect such a place to have much to recommend it, but in fact the area boasts one of the most beautiful and historic shrines that I’ve ever found in such a place: ancient Hôdô-san Shrine (寳登山神社), which according to legend has been operating in some capacity for nearly 2,000 years. Put together with the many other nearby attractions, this certainly makes Nagatoro a must-see destination for anyone looking for a day-trip out of Tokyo.

The entrance to Hodo-san Shrine

The Founding Legend

According to legend, Hôdô-san was established more than 1,900 years ago by the imperial prince Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (日本武尊), a child of the 12th emperor of Japan. Takeru arrived in the Chichibu area while on a military expedition to subjugate the locals, who had not yet bowed to his father’s rule. Upon reaching present-day Nagatoro, his heart was taken by the mysterious atmosphere and beautiful shape a mountain on the west side of the river, so he ritually purified himself in springwater and attempted to climb to the top. Not long after setting out, however, a wildfire suddenly broke out on the mountain and in no time he was surrounded by flames. Takeru and company fought the flames and it seemed like they might not survive, but then a group of large wolves appeared who helped him quell the rampant flames. After that, they accompanied him to the summit, but disappeared once he arrived there. Takeru considered these animals to have been the divine messengers of the wolf god Ôkuchima-kami (大口真神).

After the event, Takeru decided to call the mountain Hôdô-san (火止山), meaning “fire quelling mountain.” Looking out at the magnificent view of the mountains of Chichibu, he deemed it a place befitting the worship of the gods, so he established three shrines on the summit: one to the spirit of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan; one to Ôyamatsumi-no-Mikoto (大山祇命), the spirit who made the mountains; and one to Homusubi-no-Kami (火産霊神), the spirit of fire. In later years, the place became a prosperous holy site, and so an inner shrine (okumiya, 奥宮) at the summit and the main shrine (honden, 本殿) at the foot of the mountain were established to venerate Takeru’s spirit.

The view from the top of Hodo Mountain

In the early 9th century, a mystical orb was seen soaring over the mountaintop, which was taken as an auspicious sign from the gods. Consequently, the shrine and mountain were renamed Hôdô-san (寳登山), which possessed a similar pronunciation to the original but was written with the characters meaning Jewel-Ascending Mountain. From then to this day, the shrine has been an important place of worship.

Ascending to the Inner Shrine at the summit

The Inner Shrine at Hodo-san Shrine

Shops near the Inner Shrine

Hôdô-san Today

Today Hôdô-san Shrine can be found at the end of a long, wide thoroughfare marked by a large white torii gate that runs straight from Nagatoro Station to the foot of the foot of the mountain. The distance is easily walk-able, but taxis and buses are also available to suit the elderly and those with small children.

The main shrine complex features a main hall surrounded by a series of minor shrines dedicated to various gods and spirits and is located at the foot of the mountain. An inner shrine can be found at the summit and is accessible by either on foot or by cable car.

The Main Hall

Easily the most recognizable building at the Hôdô-san, the Main Hall is located at the top of a steep flight of stone steps at the end of the main approach, or omote-sando (表参道). In contrast to the typical Shinto Shrines found in the area, which tend to be either unpainted wood or painted plain red, this one is covered in a variety of bright colors and designs reminiscent of more famous shrines like the Toshogu in Nikko.

The Main Hall

The point that really sets this building apart from other shrines in Japan, however, are the scenes carved on its exterior. Each of these are drawn from classics of Chinese literature, namely four from The 24 Filial Exemplars (13th century) by the scholar Guo Jujing and a fifth from the Record of the Three Kingdoms (4th century) by Chen Shou. Their presence here at a holy place for Japan’s native religion shows the strong effect that Chinese culture had on Japan over the centuries, and the deep respect afforded to its wisdom.

The Main Hall up close

The Filial Exemplars

The 24 Filial Exemplars is a collection of parables intended to illustrate the proper application of the Confucian moral principal of filial piety, or loyalty to one’s parents. Although in the West we tend to learn of Confucius and his teachings as a distinct system of thought, these principles were in fact widely accepted as a basic philosophy of life all across Asia and were thus followed in tandem with the teachings of other religions, hence their appearance here at a Shinto shrine. The four scenes depicted here can be found high on left wall towards the front of the main hall, above the sliding wooden windows and below the eaves. Each scene progresses from right to left in the order that they are presented below.

He Fed His Parents with Doe’s Milk
Enshi’s (郯子) parents were losing their eyesight, so for their sake tried to obtain doe’s milk for medicine. He therefore donned the skin of a deer approached the herd, but a hunter mistakenly shot him. Nonetheless, Enshi obtained the milk and thus fulfilled his filial duty.

He fed his parents with doe’s milk

He Carried Rice for His Parents
Shiro (子路), one of Confucius’ 10 disciples, lived a life of poverty, but though he himself ate meager meals, he spent his daily earnings on rice which he delivered to his parents without begrudging the long road. Thus, he fulfilled his filial duty. Confucius greatly lamented Shiro’s passing.

He Fought a Tiger to Save His Father
Yôkô (陽香) and his father were working in the mountains when a tiger appeared before them. In an attempt to sacrifice himself for his father, Yôkô leaped out in front of the tiger though might have eaten him at any moment. Even the tiger could sense the depth of his filial devotion in risking one’s life for his parent, and so both father and son were saved.

He fought a tiger to save his father

He Cried and Bamboo Sprouted
Môsô’s (孟宗) mother was deathly ill during a brutally cold winter, but she desired to eat bamboo shoots in spite of their being out of season. In order to grant her request, Môsô went out into the cold bamboo forest to look for shoots even though he knew he could not possibly find one. However even the heavens were moved by this display of filial devotion, and so the gods made shoots grow up through the snow.

Interestingly, the story as presented at the shrine differs from the original telling. In that story, Môsô was told by a physician that his sick mother needed a soup made of bamboo shoots to be healed, but since it was winter and they were unavailable he simply went to the forest and cried. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise and, going to the source, he found bamboo shoots growing.

The Record of the Three Kingdoms

The Record of the Three Kingdoms might be the most famous work of early Chinese scholarship and chronicles the history of the country from the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE) through the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280), from whence the book derives its name. The work was so monumental that it became widely read throughout east Asia, including in Korea and Japan, hence why a depiction from the book can be found on Hôdô-san’s Main Shrine. The carving here is of General Zhao Yun (趙雲) at the Battle of Changban Dike (長坂坡の戦い) in 208 CE.

Zhao Yun is counted among the many beloved characters of the book along with his beloved horse White Dragon (白龍) and his spear Yajiao (涯角). At the Battle of Changban Dike, which preceded the even more famous Battle of Red Cliff (the subject of Jon Woo’s movie), Zhao Yun was tasked with defending Liu Shan (阿斗), the son of his leader Liu Bei (劉備). Zhao Yun fought hard to protect the boy, who would later go on to rule the kingdom of Shu. For this reason, he was often called “The Pillar of Shu” (蜀の柱石).

This post started getting a little long, so the second half will appear next week. If you enjoyed reading about this shrine, be sure to like and comment below! And, of course, click subscribe on the bar on the right to make sure you get to see next week’s post.

© Brian Heise, 2018


Fureai Saitama VI: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park

From the moment I opened my eyes on the morning that I walked the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park, I was in a sour mood. Eyes squinting and brow furrowed, I got my bag packed and shuffled off towards the train station with rough thoughts bouncing around my mind. And it wasn’t just that day — I my mood had been off for more than a week, which was exactly why I set out to hit the trail on that day.

There’s no better cure for a bad mood than spending hours traipsing through the hills by yourself. With nothing to distract you, no phones or computers or internet, you have all the time you need to untie that knot in your mind. And, on top of that, once you get it undone, then you find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery and fresh air, which is good prevention from settling on something new to be mad about. For me, I was already in a humming good mood before I even reached the halfway point of the trail.

The view of Chichibu from Bi-no-Yama Park


General Info

The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park starts right where the last section ended, at the Highland Ranch Bus Stop (高原牧場バス停) and can be reached by bus either from Seibu Chichibu Station (西部秩父駅) or from Oyahana Station (親鼻駅). The path follows the gentle slopes rising over a low ridge-line leading over to Oyahana Station and the Arakawa River Valley.

The main attraction of this trail is Bi-no-Yama Park, literally meaning “The Mountain of Beauty.” As one might guess from the name, the park is indeed quite beautiful on several levels. In the first place, it provides outstanding views of the Inner Musashi Mountain Range, along which the Fureai Trail has been travelling all the way through Saitama so far, but further off you can also get clear views of the towering mountains of Inner Chichibu and even the distant Nikkô Range in Tochigi Prefecture.

Chichibu from Bi-no-Yama

On the park grounds itself, however, visitors can also enjoy a wide range of flowers most of the year, though the most famous are the 8,000 or so cherry trees that make the mountain a perfect destination in April. The place has so many trees that it has even earned the “The Kanto’s Yoshino Mountain,” a comparison to the most historic site of Japanese cherry viewing located in Nara Prefecture, not far from Kyoto.

In addition to the park, the trail includes several other attractions, including ancient stone road signs from the Edo Period, traditional houses, two of the area’s most important holy grounds, and also a historic silk textile production site. In all, it’s an easy and quick trail with good historical appeal as well.


Old Highways

Though far enough off from Tokyo to be a fairly independent area in the days before railroads, the Chichibu region was nonetheless close enough to benefit from the demand for products generated by that metropolis, which even a few hundred years ago was still one of the largest cities in the world. It is not surprising, then, that multiple byways connected this isolated mountain basin with that city on the bay.

According to The Revised Musashi Atlas (新編風土記稿), published in 1825, a total of three highways led from here to Edo: the Kumagaya Way (熊谷みち), the Kawagoe Way (川越みち), and the Agano Way (吾野みち). Those familiar with the Kanto will recognize the first two as important urban centers on the plain, which these two routes pass through respectively; the third is a more mountainous route that passes over Shômaru Pass (正丸峠) before moving through Agano on the way to the Tokyo. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that the Fureai Trail also passes along this way, although it sticks to the ridge-line whereas the old road follows valleys everywhere except the passes.

The main divergence of these three routes is located near the start of the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park in an area called Misawa, which is a historical site for silk production (see below). Seeing as silk was such a lucrative industry and in high demand in the capital, it’s likely that the crossroads were located here to facilitate transport of this product.


The Temple of Common Comfort

The first part of the trail leads gently up a paved road through the Misawa, a scenic hillside village.


Not long after departing the bus stop, you’ll arrive at a small temple known as the Jôraku-ji, the Temple of Common Comfort, which is affiliated with the New Shingon Sect. They say that the temple was founded some 300 years ago, though apparently it was lost to fire during the Tempo Period (天保年間, 1830-1844) along with all of its artifacts. The current main hall was rebuilt in 1852.

Unfortunately, it proved difficult to photograph as it was built so close to the edge of a steep hillside that only a small portion could be caught in a single frame. Hanging above the entrance, however, was the following piece of calligraphy.

Calligraphy over the entrance of the Jôraku-ji

The principal deity of worship at the temple is Fudô Myô-ô (不動明王), the Immovable Shining King, whose wrathful visage is depicted wrapped in flames that burn away the impediments defilement that block the path to enlightenment. The main hall of the temple is dedicated to him, but next to it is located a smaller hall where the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of infinite life, is worshiped.

The Amida Hall at Jôraku-ji


The Flowers of Misawa Village

Though not noted as particularly famous in the area, many of the locals have cultivated a wide variety of flowers in front of their houses. As you travel along the road through the village, take the time to enjoy their beauty.







The Weavers of Kami-Misawa

Past the Temple of Common Comfort the trail continues along paved roads through the village. Though many of the buildings are showing their age today, in the past this place was once a area of vibrant economic activity due to local silk production. According to the information signs along the trail, the lack of land flat enough to grow rice in the Chichibu area led farmers to supplement their income with silk production, which could be carried out even on steep mountainsides. According to The Revised Atlas of Musashi, women were those principally in charge of this industry, both raising the silkworms and weaving silk textiles.

At the end of the Edo period in the mid 1800s, the number of villages exporting raw silk in the area expanded greatly, and even out of the way places like Misawa became prosperous. Chichibu is still famous today for its meisen (銘仙) silk, which is popularly used as kimono fabric owing to its durable thick weave. A signboard along the path here states that the sound of weaving machines can still be heard here, but I didn’t notice anything as I passed through.

The trail takes to the forest

A ruined old shed


The Temple of the 23rd Night

At some point the trail plunges into dense vegetation honing in on the trail such that it nearly forms a tunnel, but not long after it comes out again on pavement, and shortly thereafter you arrive at yet another temple — this time, it’s the Temple of the 23rd Night (Nijûsanya-ji, 二十三夜寺), an affiliate of the Shingon Sect.


Perhaps it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that “the 23rd Night” is a reference to a specific cultural something that can’t be grasped just by the name alone. I was at a loss at first, but after some digging I found that “The 23rd Night” is a monthly religious ceremony that was once widely celebrated in Japan, though today I suppose few participate. The ceremony was apparently held on the 23rd day of each month by the old lunar calendar. On that day the congregation (that is, the men of the congregation most likely) would gather together to watch the moonrise while partaking in much food and drink, believing that a spirit would manifest itself.

This temple, it seems, has a long history. The temple records hold that one of the most important figures in early Japanese history, Prince Shôtoku, founded the temple. This man is not only remembered as the statesmen who promulgated the first written Japanese legal code but who also the first major proponent of Buddhism who worked to spread it far and wide across the land. They say that Shôtoku himself carved a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), one of the principal Buddhist deities, and also built a thatched roof hut within which to enshrine it.

After that, Gyôki (行基), a 7th century monk, carved and enshrined a statue of the bodhisattva Seishi (勢至菩薩), who is now the principal deity of worship at the temple. Seishi is a god of wisdom, and his many followers believe that those who suffer hardship on account of their ignorance can be saved by the light of his wisdom.

I wasn’t able to determine the age of the current structures, but it seems unlikely that they’re very old since most temples make a point of promoting that and this temple didn’t make any reference to it. Nonetheless, it is a charming temple built in traditional style, and given the wear and tear on the exterior, it definitely has been around for at least some decades if not a century.

The signage on the trail is a little unclear at the temple, but to find the path again climb up to the front of the main hall and then turn left. The path will continue of the mountainside from there.


Cape Lilac

Among the various types of flora to be found along the Fureai Trail, one to look for on this section is the Cape Lilac, or sendan (センダン) in Japanese. This deciduous tree grows wild along the seashores and mountains of Kyushu and Shikoku, but is also often grown domestically in towns and villages. In May and June clumps of light purple flowers form at the tips of their branches, and in extremely rare cases, you can even find varieties sporting white flowers. They also produce elliptical fruits that turn yellow when ripe and often remain in large numbers even after the tree has shed its leaves for the fall, a good tell for identifying the plant. These fruits are called kurenshi (苦棟子) and are used as medicine, which I assume means they don’t taste so good. You can spot a specimen in the parking lot of the Temple of the 23rd Night.

The Cape Lilac at the Temple of the 23rd Night

Flowers on the Cape Lilac


Mixed Groves

In Japan, there is a variety of forest known as a “mixed grove” (雑木林), which is comprised of several varieties of trees rather than a more pure, single-species forest. Much of this section of trail passes through such a forest, though their are a few predominant species, such as the sawtooth oak (kunugi) and pin oak (konara). The forest floor in this area is also rich, not just in low growing plants but also in birds and insects.

Forests like this have had a close connection with Japanese society over the centuries. For example, villages have historically used sawtooth oak, chestnut, and pin oak to make firewood and charcoal, and even to grow mushrooms. On top of that, fallen leaves were used as fertilizer.

A small graveyard amid the trees

A stone monument to the god Asama Taishin

White flowers


The Flowers of Bi-No-Yama Park

Less than 30 minutes after departing the Temple of the 23rd Night you will reach the main attraction of this section of trail: Bi-no-Yama, or the Mountain of Beauty. This mountaintop park provides not just gorgeous views of the high mountains all around from Chichibu to Nikko, but also sports a wide array of flowers that bloom all through the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The mountain is probably most famous for its 8000 or more cherry trees, which make the mountain a perfect destination for the Cherry Blossom Season in April, but you can also see various species of iris blossoms in from April to July, and also hostas and lilies in July and August. There are even some flowers still in bloom as late as mid December.

The mountains of Inner Musashi

Outside of the cherries, however, two of the mountains most famous attractions are it’s fields of hydrangea (ajisai, 紫陽花) and azalea (tsutsuji, 躑躅). The hydrangea field is located on the east side of the park and contains more than 3,500 specimens over a space of 7.5 square kilometers. On the west side of the mountain, growing with a shady forest, is the field of bright red azaleas. I wasn’t able to find much info on the scale of the field and the flowers weren’t in bloom when I passed through so I couldn’t see for myself, but the pictures in the visitor center suggest that this is also quite a sight to see. Be sure to take your time to explore all the corners of the park to make sure you don’t miss anything interesting.

A shrine in Bi-no-Yama Park


The Temple of 10,000 Blessings

Following Bi-no-Yama Park, the path descends downward more or less directly towards Oyahana Station, the end of the trail. However, once you reach the town below be sure not to miss the last attraction on this path, the Temple of 10,000 Blessings (万福寺). The temple is located fairly close to Route 140, the main highway passing near the station, but it’s easy to miss as the signage isn’t the best at that point. As you follow the road through town after getting off the mountain, keep your eyes on the right.

Statues at the entrance to the Manpuku-ji

They say that the Temple of 10,000 Blessings was first founded in 1023 AD by the monk Kango Hôin (看鑁法印), but I couldn’t find much more information than that regarding it’s origins. As seems to be all too common with Japanese temples, the original structures and most of the temple’s artifacts were lost to fire in 1882, but miraculously the statue of the Amida Buddha, the principle deity of the temple, survived. The current structures date to 1932.

The Manpuku-ji

Personally, I didn’t find the temple to be that impressive, but if you’re passing by you might as well stop in to have a look before you catch the train from Oyahana back to Tokyo.


Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park (Bi-no-Yama Kôen wo Tazuneru Michi, 美の山公園を訪ねるみち)
Click here
Start: Highland Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Oyahana Station (Oyahana Eki, 親鼻駅)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: Spring-Fall
Camping Locations:* None
Length (distance): 8.2 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Bi-no-Yama Park (seasonal only), Oyahana

*Note that these are not officially designated camping locations but simply places that I judge would be nice to put down a tent. Camp at your own risk.

My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 161.7 km (9%)
Courses completed: 13/160 (8.1%)
Days Spent: 10.5

© Brian Heise 2018


2017 Japan East Alps Part V: Limping Through a Sunny Day

Getting Started

On a beautiful day, it’s hard to feel down or discouraged. When you feel that bright sunshine on your skin, it seeps in, warms you up, and lessens your pain. Especially after you’ve spent two hard days hiking in the clouds and rain, a little sunshine is does wonders.

I woke up on the morning of the third day since I hit the trail to bright sunshine on the fly of my tent. I came to slowly and groggily opened the tent and crawled out to see a deep blue sky with beautiful wisps of white clouds drifting across it. It was the weather I’d been waiting the whole trip for.

Early morning on Minister Pass.

Weather — check. Body condition? I got up and started wandering around the grounds testing out my feet and chafed areas. Everything seemed fine — or at least I didn’t feel any pain. It was shaping up to be a good day, but even so, I was in no hurry. I really took my time as I ate my breakfast and packed up my things.

I sat down to eat in the genkan of the hut since there were some steps to sit on. As I ate, I began to look at the posters on the walls of the room. Some of them were hiking posters, one had some female Olympic athlete on it, but there were also some more curious ones, like a collection of wanted posters, about nine in total. Each one had a big mugshot of the person in question with a list of crimes, which varied from person to person, but each did have one thing in common: 殺人, murder. What an odd thing to post in a hikers hut. I wondered if maybe it was common for wanted men to come hide out in these parts.

Looking at their photos, I noticed they all had a certain look about them. It wasn’t in the way they were dressed or even their expressions or haircuts. It was their faces. Something in their faces sent me eerie danger signals. I felt like if I saw one of those faces on the street, I’d be looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night.

Having finished my breakfast, I broke out the maps to check out today’s hike. According to my plan, I would hike today to Kobushi ga Take (甲武信ヶ岳, “Peak of the Fist,” 2475m), camp out on the ridge, and then go back down the mountain the next morning to catch a train back to Tokyo. Looking at the map, I had quite a ways to go, and having been set back by the rain and expecting to be delayed by my injuries, I knew it would be tough to make it all the way today, but I resolve to give it a shot.

Now came the dreaded part: all of my chores finished, I had to put my shoes back on. However, in the absence of a fire the night before, they hadn’t really dried out at all. If you’ve never experienced the feeling of putting sopping wet shoes and socks on dry feet, I can tell you it’s not at all a pleasant experience. Even I, who experienced this many times on adventures with my dad when I was a kid, haven’t gotten used to it yet — only more reluctant to waste time procrastinating. One by one I pick them on, grimacing as the wet fabric clung to my foot so tightly that I had to ease it gradually down the length of my foot and up my calf. I suffered through it though. Shoes on, I shouldered my pack and climbed the ten minutes back up to the top of the pass.

To Goose Pass

The first leg of the trip today was a roughly four-hour stretch from trail from Minister Pass (将監峠) to Goose Pass (雁峠), during which I would pass through Cow King’s Hall Flat (牛王院平), Mountain God’s Ground (山の神土, 1872m), Palace Boulder (御殿岩), Larch Slope Mountain (唐松尾山, 2109m), and Kasatori Mountain (笠取山, 1953m). I set out.

The first part of this stretch was Cow King’s Hall Flat, a large relatively flat area filled with beautiful meadows that lay between the more typical steep slopes of this particular ridge. I was rather amazed at the difference between this area and what I had hiked through the previous day and wondered what forces caused this area to be so different. Thinking back to my home in the Ozarks, I noticed how geographically out of my element I was. On hikes through the hills back home, I can read the landforms like a book and give you a reasonably good explanation for how they came to be the way they are. Here I can’t offer more than just telling you what they looked like.

I remember naively thinking that this was just what this region of the mountains was like and that the trail would persist like this for the rest of the day. No such luck, though: things returned to a more typical treacherously sleep mountainsides in no time. It was in this area that my sopping wet feet started to give me trouble again, especially around my right ankle, which had been the most painful part yesterday. I made sure to be extra careful about how I stepped so that I minimized friction. Luckily I got some great views, so the pain didn’t get me down too much.

One thing I regret in retrospect, though, is my decision to skip Palace Boulder, which required about a 20 minute trek down a side trail. Given my hurting ankle and the fact that I needed all the time I could get to meet my goal for the day, I opted to to pass it by. Before writing this post though I decided to do a bit of research on it and it turns out its a really beautiful spot. I guess I missed out.

One slightly creepy moment on the trail was when I passed a middle-aged man somewhere on this section. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought anything if I hadn’t seen those wanted posters earlier that morning, but the guy had that exact unsettling aspect to his face that I thought I saw in those mugshots. What’s more, usually when hiking I get good vibes from fellow hikers, either from the smiles and greetings of “O-tsukare sama desu!” in the more gregarious cases to a casual nod and smile in the more taciturn. This guy, though, had a complete lack of affect, but I sensed that my presence was not appreciated by him. In my imagination, this was because he was hiding from the authorities. Perhaps he was wondering whether he would need to track me down and finish me off. Or maybe my thoughts just run wild when I’m alone for so long. Either way, that was the last I saw of that guy.

Those thoughts disappeared though once I put some distance between him and myself. As I walked, I began to think more about the kanji I was seeing on the signs in the area and the insights I was able to get about the places and things I was seeing by being able to read them. For example, one of the mountains that I passed over was called “Larch Slope Mountain,” presumably because of all the larches growing there. What I found interesting though, was the Japanese word for larch (which I hadn’t seen before then), karamatsu (唐松), which means literally “Tang pine.” For those less familiar with East Asian history, the character kara (唐) refers to the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) of China. I couldn’t guess just from the name why larches would be called Tang pines, but it indicates that there may be an interesting history behind this tree. Perhaps it isn’t native to Japan but was actually brought here when China was ruled by that dynasty. It’s hard to say just from the name, though, because the character continued to be a catch-all name for China long after the dynasty actually fell, so it’s possible that the name might not have any connection to the dynasty itself. Either way, I enjoy the speculation, and when you have no one to talk to for days, you’ll take what you can get.

As I continued onward, I came to a fork in the trail. Checking the map, I found that if I went one way I would ascend to the summit of Kasatori Mountain, and if I went the other way I could circumvent it and go straight to Goose Pass on more or less even ground. Yet again, influenced by the pain in my ankle and concerns of time, I chose to skip the peak. At this point I was seriously considering just giving up at Goose Pass.

As I continued on, I came to a place called Mizuhi (水干), whose name literally means “water-drying” though at the time I misread the second character as 千, which means 1,000. This place, as it turns out, is the origin of the Tama River (多摩川), which flows 138 km from this spot to Tokyo Bay. Upon realizing this, the meaning of this place’s name becomes clear: if you follow the river long enough, you reach a point where the water dries up. That’s this point. I filled my water bottle and continued on.

Mizuhi, the origin of the Tama River.

Lunch at Goose Pass

Not long after I came to Goose Pass. Similar to Cow King’s Hall, Goose Pass was a wide flat area covered with meadows rather than forest. It was absolutely gorgeous, so much so that I resolved to continue hiking regardless of the pain in my foot.

I hiked through the meadows looking for a good place to sit and have lunch. The map said that there was a hut in the pass, so I searched it out, but it turned out to be in ruins like some of the huts I saw on the previous day, so I walked a little farther and a collection of benches at a crossroads in the trail. Perfect.

Across the wide meadow, the mountain whose peak I had recently bypassed, Kasatori Mountain, rose up in a sharp cone-shape, revealing the reason for it’s name. The first character in Kasatori is 笠, which is the Japanese word for those cone-shaped bamboo hats that we Americans typically associate with Chinese farmers. Looking up at the mountain, it’s cone shape was definitely reminiscent of a kasa (not to be confused with the other kasa, 傘, which means “umbrella”). The summit was bare of trees as well, so the view must have been good. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to climb it.

I sat down and stripped off my shoes and socks, ringing out as much water from the socks as I could before laying them out to dry on the bench. The sun was shining bright and hot at this point, so I thought I might be able to get them at least a little dry. Next I pulled out the maps to examine the trail ahead. It looked like another three hour stretch to the next pass and mountain hut, Karisaka or Goose Hill (雁坂), and over the stretch I would pass over three peaks, Swallow Mountain (燕山, 2004 m), Old Ritual Mountain (古礼山, 2112 m), and Crystal Mountain (水晶山, 2158m). After that was yet another three hour stretch until the next hut. At this point, though, it was 12 o’clock and I figured I needed about an hour to rest and recover before going on, meaning I’d set out at 1 o’clock, arrive at Goose Hill at 4 o’clock, and if I went on I wouldn’t be to the end until 7 o’clock. On top of that, none of these estimates were factoring in rest breaks. I didn’t really want to end so early as 4 o’clock, but I also didn’t like the idea of hiking after dark. Not that I worried so much for safety since I was carrying a headlamp, but I just didn’t want to walk that long — I just wasn’t in the physical condition for it. After some deliberation I reluctantly decided that I should end the night at Goose Hill Pass and then go straight down the mountain the next morning, cutting out the last stretch up to Kobushi Peak. I hated giving up like that, but I knew I also needed to be practical. Having made my decision, I resolved to spend the remaining time in my hour off enjoying the view and eating my lunch.

I sat gazing off into the distance lost in thought, taking in the sites and the sounds of Goose Pass. The sun was warm on my skin, but the breeze was cool, whistling through the grass and the trees. Birds were chirping and insects were buzzing. And there was another sound too. It was so faint at first I didn’t notice it, but it eventually built up to the point where I couldn’t miss it: the sound of bells. I looked around to find the source and spotted another hiker making his way down the steep slope next to me that I would be ascending myself shortly. The sound was ringing out from a set of bear bells he had dangling at his waist. I watched him as he gradually made his way back and forth down the switchbacks on the grassy slope. As he approached, though, I realized that I was hearing bells not just from his direction, but from directly ahead of me, down the hill and out of sight. Shortly, though, another hiker came into view, first head, then shoulders, and torso as he ascended into my field of vision. Both hikers arrived at the benches at about the same time.

We all nodded a greeting to each other and then proceeded to eat lunch, but no one said a word. We didn’t need to. We were all hikers, so we all knew why we were here, and it wasn’t for conversation. We were here to be alone and get away from other people, so we all instinctively knew not to spoil that for each other. We ate in silence. After they finished, they stood, nodded once more, and left. Neither one went the direction I was going.

By the benches there was an information board explaining a bit about the vegetation in the pass. According to the board, the Tang pines growing in this area had not always grown here, but were planted during the Taisho period (1912–1926). Apparently wildfires caused by slash and burn agriculture during the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868–1912) had broadened the bare areas on the mountains, leading to recurring landslides and flooding. To protect against these disasters, efforts were made to plant the forest. Accompanying the words was a grainy old black and white photo of a mountaintop without a single tree. Regarding the mountain passes, the board explained that the meadows, which typically appear on the Yamanashi side of the ridge, were also formed as a result of forest fires. After the original trees burned away, meadow plants moved in, such as bistort, knotweed, and woundwort. As much as I was enjoying the view, I had to say that I couldn’t complain about the environmental destruction that those forest fires had caused. The board went on to say that the Saitama side of the passes are typically occupied with sub-alpine conifer forests. Some representative plants from these areas are Veitch’s silver fir (白檜曾), Maries’ fir (大白檜曾), and creeping woodsorrel (深山酢漿), if those names mean anything to you.

On a side note, I wanted to say that I find the literal meaning of the Japanese names for things interesting due to the insights into Japanese culture that they provide — as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I take pains to make sure I translate everything to make sure those nuances aren’t lost on you, the reader. Aside from the Tang pine, three plants I listed above, bistort, knotweed, and woundwort, also have interesting names (I couldn’t find a way to render the others in English so I opted to not translate them). Anyway, those three are called “Juniper Tiger’s Tail” (伊吹虎の尾), “Tigerstaff” (虎杖), and “Autumn Giraffe Grass” (秋の麒麟草) respectively. The typical English names just don’t have the same flavor, do they?

Onward to Goose Hill Pass

I watched my clock closely during my break, intent to make sure I didn’t rest a minute less than the full hour that I promised myself. Although I was anxious to get on the trail again, I wasn’t at all anxious to put on my wet socks. Just as I did earlier this morning, though, I laboriously pulled them on in spite of their clinging to my skin.

That chore completed, I stood up only to feel a sharp pain in the right side of my middle toe on my right foot, like a needle being jabbed in. Thinking something had fallen into my shoe, I took it off to check, but I didn’t find anything, so I put the shoe on once more only to feel that same sharp pain. I took off my shoe again and the sock as well, but there was nothing. I examined the painful spot to see that there was a small spot where the epidermis was missing, exposing tender dermis below. I didn’t have a clue what had caused this, but since there was nothing I could do about it, I figured I’d just have to endure this pain like all the others I was feeling. I put my shoe back on and set off towards Swallow Mountain.

The view from the slope, before entering the trees again.

My lunch spot below with the cone-shaped Kasatori Mountain rising on the left.

As I ascended, the pain in the side of my toe started to blend in with the rest and after a while I hardly noticed it anymore. After climbing a steep, narrow, rocky ridge for about an hour, I came to Swallow Peak. The peak itself turned out to have not much of a view since it was covered with trees, but there were several beautiful flat grassy areas with magnificent views between higher rocky areas that would have been perfect to pitch a tent. I imagined leading people up there to a camping party where everyone would praise me for knowing such an awesome spot. But it didn’t take me long to burst my own bubble on that fantasy, realizing that I don’t know anyone who would actually enjoy such a thing. What a shame.

All day I had been enjoying beautiful sunny skies with puffy white clouds scattered about. As I walked slowly up the comparatively shallow, grassy slopes dotted with the skeletons of dead trees of Old Ritual mountain, however, the situation changed suddenly: a wall of dark grey clouds rolled over the mountain top, blocking out the sunlight to the point that I would have sworn it was early evening if I didn’t have a clock on me. It looked like a storm was rolling in. Goddammit.

Clouds getting darker.

A premonition of rain.

I started to pick up the pace. As much as I didn’t want to have to spend all afternoon sitting around the hut with nothing to do, I figured I’d rather spend a lot of time waiting around dry in a hut than get soaked again. The sky got darker and darker and I felt occasional raindrops, but by the time I arrived at the top of Crystal Mountain, it still hadn’t started yet. I was getting hopeful that I could make it to the hut dry.

Descending the far side of Crystal Mountain, I saw a big change in the environment. Throughout the hike I had passed through many mountain meadows contained within forests of deciduous and evergreen trees shading a forest floor of mountain grass. Here, though, I found a forest of mostly conifers looming over a floor consisting of broken rocks and other debris covered in a thick layer of moss. I hadn’t seen anything like it the whole trip.

More moss than Moss Peak.

As I made my way down the slope I came to a fork in the path, with the sign saying that the right fork would lead to Goose Hill Hut. I’d remembered from the map that the trail to the hut was supposed to be at the pass, but this was clearly not the pass yet. I supposed this was a shortcut, so I took it. As it turns out, I was right: in less than a half an hour the hut came into view.

Goose Hill Hut

This mountain hut consisted of a complex of buildings, perhaps four in all. Most were locked up tight, but one building was open. I slid open the door to find a dirt and stone floored room with a wood stove in the middle, a raised floor space along one wall covered in tatami mats, and a steep staircase going up to a loft area. Home for the night!

I dropped my bag and scouted out the rest of the area, locating the bathroom, the water supply (fresh flowing mountain springwater), and the camping area. The camping area was particularly dismal, with very little space for tents and most of it was filled with rough rocks. If I had entertained any thoughts of pitching my tent for the night, they were gone now. If my choice is between tatami and rocks, I’ll pick the tatami any day.

I had arrived at the hut right on schedule, that being 4:00 o’clock. I had some hours to go until sundown and I’m typically way too ADD to just sit around, but the pain in my feet and my chafing crotch was more than enough to make me totally satisfied to sit still for a few hours. I went back to the main building, pulled out my sleeping bag, crawled inside, and proceeded to listen to podcasts as I waited for the sun to set. As the evening wore on, I even pulled out the bottle of Chinese white liquor (白酒) that I’d brought along, which I’d left untouched up to this point (completely out of character for me). Between the influence of the liquor and my own exhaustion, I was fast asleep.

This post is part five of a six-part series on my hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan in the summer of 2017. Click the links below to navigate to the other posts.

© 2017 Brian Heise

2017 Japan East Alps Part IV: Kumotori and the Wet Feet

The day after the storm wasn’t bright sunny as I had hoped — rather, it started off with a shroud of mist. But, thanks to my campfire, I was completely dried out, and though the morning air was cool, even in my running shorts and T-shirt, I wasn’t at all cold so I set out in high spirits. The ascent was incredibly steep for a while, but once I reached a certain height on the ridge, things began to stabilize a bit. I was making good time and felt I had a good chance of making for the time I lost the previous day. I passed the landmarks one by one:

  • Okiyodaira (お清平, “The Pure Flat”): a flat area on the ridge where the trail that circumvented Moss Peak that I passed yesterday reconnects.
  • Mae-Shiraiwa-no-Kata (前白岩の肩, “The Shoulder of the First White Boulder Mountain”): as it sounds, a small hump on the side of the first White Boulder Mountain.
  • Mae-Shiraiwa Yama (前白岩山, “The First White-Boulder Mountain,” 1776m): a rather unimpressive peak, covered in trees that obstructed the view.

The previous night my companion had mentioned seeing other huts like the one that we stayed in, but mentioned that none of them were in as good of condition as ours. I figured he was referring to a few places marked on the map that ended in the character ato (跡), meaning “ruins” or “remains.” Some time after I started, I came upon one of them: the remains of White-Boulder Hut (白岩小屋跡).

The ruins of White Boulder Hut, 1764m.

When he said they were in bad condition, I didn’t expect anything this bad — the building was in a state of total decay, the interior a mass of filth and rotting blankets. The place had clearly been completely abandoned without even a cursory attempt to salvage anything. I had to wonder what had led to such a situation. My best guess was that the national park service of Japan overestimated demand and built too many shelters on the mountain, leading some of them to be abandoned when they turned out to be unprofitable. I had seen similar abandoned huts when I hiked Mt. Fuji some years before, though they were more easily explained by the fact that a road now went halfway up the mountain, making all of the shelters below that point useless.

While poking around for a bit, I noticed a small sign indicating that a side-trail led to water. Having completely finished one of the two two-liter bottles I was carrying, I decided to go fill up. Even though I didn’t have any purification tablets, I reasoned that a case of diarrhea was preferable to dying of thirst.

My spare bottle filled, I prepared to depart the ruin. And then it started to rain. By the time I reached the summit of White Boulder Mountain (白岩山, 1921m), it was coming down hard. So much for getting dried out the night before.

I trudged along through the rain past Imo no Ki Dokke (芋の木ドッケ, “Potato-Tree Peak, 1946m), Daidawa (大ダワ), and on to Kumotori Lodge. The lodge was quite an impressive place, doubly so considering my expectations from the ruins I had seen earlier. It was a two story high cabin, perhaps two school buses long, with hardly a sign of wear and tear. Of course, to me, as wet and cold as I was, it could have been an outhouse and I would have been happy to see it. I immediately went inside.

The lobby sported a wide genkan, and beyond a bin of slippers; to the right was a vacant desk, beyond it a few benches and some heaters, and directly ahead of me was a refrigerated glass container filled with drinks, including beer (¥500 or about $5 for a 12oz). Although I ordinarily would be rather enthused at finding out I could get an ice cold beer on the side of a mountain, in my current state the thought of drinking an ice-cold anything didn’t appeal to me. Rather, I was more interested in getting my feet out of my wet shoes and warming up a bit. I immediately proceeded to the former activity, the second being somewhat more difficult. Grabbing a pair of slippers from the bin, I proceeded to explore the establishment.

I walked the entire building from one end to the other, first and second floor. Each room was completely empty of occupants, and the dining hall was also empty. It was as if the entire place was abandoned.

I couldn’t help snapping a picture of myself in a big mirror I found at the far end of the dining hall.

It seemed strange that there was no one here since the place seemed fully functional, with electricity running and all. I figured someone had to be around, but since I didn’t see anyone, I just decided to sit down in the lobby and rest for a bit and try to warm up. After sitting for a while, I thought I heard someone moving around in the direction of the dining hall. I got up and went in there to see a Japanese man behind the counter. I got his attention, saying just “Hello” in Japanese. He turned around and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was resting before going to Kumotori Mountain. He said it was before opening, so I had to wait outside. I protested, noting the rain. He said I had to wait outside and that there was a small shelter where I could sit and get dry. Grumbling, I complied, but once I stepped outside I saw that the rain had stopped while I was inside and it was almost sunny. Finally! I ate a bit, filled my water bottles, and continued the climb. As it turned out, it wasn’t that far to the top of the mountain.

The view, as you can see above, was mostly obscured by clouds, so I didn’t take a lot of photos. Onward.

As I was making the final ascent to the summit of Kumotori Mountain, I started to notice a bit of chafing around the groin. This was somewhat unusual for me — I’d never chafed before when hiking. Then again, I’d never been so thoroughly soaked for such a long period of time either. This problem would make the rest of the hike less pleasant than I would have preferred, but it would quickly be put in second place next to the issues that would develop with my feet.

Considering the amount of walking I do on a daily basis, blisters are not something I worry about, and indeed even on this trip, where I ended up hiking four days with wet feet, I didn’t get a single blister. What I did get was friction burns on both sides of my right ankle caused by the wet high tops of my hiking shoes rubbing against my soaking wet socks, which in turn rubbed against my ankle with each step (interestingly, no problem on the left side). This issue would gradually get worse throughout the course of the day.

Looking at the maps, reaching Kumotori Mountain wasn’t even half of what I had to do to make up for the time I lost yesterday. I had to move fast. Luckily, since I was already up on the ridge, the amount of vertical distance was small — I had to cover mostly horizontal distance. As I descended from Kumotori, however, I did start to notice an issue with the trail, that being that it didn’t seem to be in the best shape. As it turned out, Kumotori was a popular hiking area, and the far region from Shôgen Pass (将監峠, “Magistrate Pass”) and beyond was also such an area (as I would later find out, that region contains one of Japans “Three Great Passes” or 三大峠). However, the trail connecting them contained nothing quite so impressive as either area, and thus got a lot less foot-traffic and consequently much less attention from the trail maintenance crews. Even the best maintained areas were highly overgrown with mountain grass, which was still dripping with rainwater, ensuring that my feet would only get wetter as the day progressed, not drier. Furthermore, the trail in this section wound along an incredibly steep dirt ridge and was just narrowly cut into the edge, leaving a precipitous drop on my left throughout the whole way. More than once, the edge of the trail would collapse as I stepped on it, nearly throwing me down the side of the mountain, where doubtlessly I would tumble until a tree managed to end my descent. Luckily that didn’t happen. On top of all this, the steepness of the ridge and the looseness of the soil made the area prone to landslides, the remains of which appeared frequently. Some of them were pretty fresh, possibly caused by the heavy rains from the night before. Some had even affected the trail.

As I walked, the pain from the chafing in my groin and right ankle gradually increased and I began to realize that I had to update my plan a little bit. In particular, there was one peak, Hiryû Yama (飛竜山, “Flying Dragon Mountain,” 2077m), that I would have to abandon. Climbing it meant I would need to ascend for 20 minutes and then backtrack 15 to get back on the main trail and continue. In my current state and with my limited time, I decided to just bypass it. Checking the time estimates for the trail, I figured I could get to Magistrate Pass before dark, where I would find a mountain hut with an adjacent campground. I made this my destination.

The hours passed along with the kilometers as I walked this mostly unimpressive stretch of trail. By sometime around 6:30, though, I finally limped in to Magistrate’s Pass. I was not in a good mood. My feet were still soaking wet, and the chafing wasn’t helping. I located the mountain hut, a dirty, poorly constructed building that looked like it had barely been slapped together. The place seemed totally abandoned, and after poking around for a bit I determined that it had.

I was exhausted and in pain. I set up my tent and, too tired to even try to light a fire, I ate my dinner of Johnsonville brawts cold, crawled into my tent, and promptly fell asleep. As I was drifting off, I decided that if I wasn’t feeling better in the morning, I’d hike straight down the mountain from where I was, find the nearest bus stop, and get back home to rest and recover.

This post is part four in a six-part series on my hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan in the summer of 2017. Click the links below to navigate to the other posts in this series.

© 2017 Brian Heise